When I was but a young cat lady (rather than a nearly 30 cat lady), I used to admire a t-shirt worn by one of my classmates. It had five cats walking together toward you on the front, and it showed five kitty behinds walking “away” on the back. It was a popular shirt, and I realized over time that many — many — people had them.
Still it wasn’t until much later that a friend from college, Amanda, told me that this shirt (she used to have one herself) actually had a proper name – “Cats Coming & Going.” As soon as I learned that, I knew I wanted to talk more to the person behind the design, artist Anna Grupke, to learn more about her and this funny and enduring design.
Your t-shirt “Cats Coming & Going” debuted in 1986 and quickly became very popular. What inspired the design?
I don’t really know! I just had a lot of cats and was looking at trying to create t-shirts, which everybody likes. I saw Kliban’s bowling “Alley cat” t-shirt that had a front and a back to it and thought it would be cool to have a whole line of cats walking, which you would never normally see. And of course, you see the backs of cats the most, so I put those two ideas together and created the shirt, using my cats as models.
You couldn’t find many picture references for the rear end of a cat back then, so I’d put my cats on my ironing board and tempt them to the other side with a piece bologna so that I could take pictures of their butts.
Three of my own cats appeared on the final shirt: Sugar (the Siamese), Nonny (the Tabby, next to Sugar) and Bubbychucks all the way on th eleft(who was more gray than white, but making him white worked better for the shirt).
Did you have any idea how popular it would be? What do you think made it so popular?
No, I didn’t. I put a teeny-weeny little ad in “Cats” magazine to promote the shirt and got a few orders from people saying, “Oh, this is nice.” My mother was helping me at the time and we would go every morning and check the mail. Usually 2, 3, or 4 orders would come in each day. Then one day, nothing was in the mailbox but a pink card I have never seen before. I figured that was the end of it and that I wouldn’t get any more orders. Since I didn’t know what the pink card meant, I took to the Post Office clerk and he brought out a huge bin full of orders.
I never did find out what that tipping point was that made it so popular, but I think the surprise factor of the back was really fun for people. People who bought the shirt would write telling me how much fun it was to wear and how people were always saying “Turn around, turn around!” People compliment the front, but the back is what really gets the biggest reactions. It’s playful and surprising, and I think that’s what people like about it.
I got a great letter from a woman who was a teacher and would wear it on the first day of class. When she would turn around the kids would see the cat butts and laugh and laugh. It was like an icebreaker.
Are sales of the t-shirt still good?
It continues to be popular — not as much as it was before, but I think now it’s making a retro comeback. Especially if someone puts the shirt on their blog or something, I’ll see a flurry of orders! A few years ago, however, my mom got sick and I entrusted the fulfillment end of the business to someone else. In the year and a half that I was caring for my mom, these folks almost put me out of business! I was glad that I was able to be with Mom at that moment. Because she and I ran the business together at the beginning, it was important for me to get it back on its feet (like a cat, right?) anyway…I went through a financially challenging period, from which I am just beginning to recover.
There are so many cat lovers in the world. In the early days it was little old ladies — god love them — and we’d get letters with money taped to cardboard. Now it’s a whole new generation of people that love animals, and it’s wonderful. Love for our pet companions feels universal.
What is your background as an artist?
At the time that I did the shirt, I had recently graduated with a BFA in commercial art, but for my day job I was doing real estate management for my father-in-law. The fact this I did this design, and that it became so popular, completely changed the course of the next 25 years of my life.
You now run Meow.com, a site that sells apparel, decor and games for cat lovers. How many of the products on the site are your design?
Just about all of them, really. Say 98%. The remaining 2% are artists who I’ve either developed a concept with collaboratively, or whose work I’ve bought the rights to. It’s been really, really, fun. Doing this and having so much fun doing it, it should be against the law. Cat people are so creative, funny, and bizarre. And doing art for a living is like being a kindergarten your whole life.
How often are you making new designs?
I haven’t done a lot of new designs recently, but it’s always on my mind. It ebbs and flows, but creating more new art is my next project. I think contemporary cat owners are looking for different types of art on their cat t-shirts, even if the overall humor and message stays the same. That’s what I see a trend towards. It may seem hard to believe now, but the design for Cats Coming & Going was pretty edgy at it’s time!
How many cats of your own do you have?
I have two cats of my own, and have had as many as seven in the past. We didn’t start out with that many, but I would receive letters from people who had bought the shirt who had tons and tons of cats and we figured, we needed more cats!
My kitties have all been rescues, either ferals or some shelter cats, except for Velure Bubbychucks (the white cat all the way on the left of the Cats Coming & Going t-shirt), who was a retired Chartreux show cat. My current cats are Mister, who was a stray , and Purrl, who was a surrendered kitty at Nashville metro animal control. They are my JOYS!
We’re a cats-only household right now, although I do want to try a dog before I leave this earth.